Lt Col Leo K Thorsness
Published November 21, 2014
On April 19, 1967, Major Thorsness piloted an F-105 Thunder chief on a combat mission over North Vietnam. He was flying with a strike force sent out to suppress surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites.
Acting with his electronic warfare officer, Major Thorsness first detected one site as it was about to launch an attack and destroyed it with a Shrike missile. Almost immediately, another site was discovered. Major Thorsness flew through heavy antiaircraft fire to score direct hits on the site with cluster bombs.
On this second strike Major Thorsness' wingman was hit and the two crew members bailed out. As he circled the descending parachutes, a MIG-17 appeared in the area. Major Thorsness promptly dived but his shots missed the enemy fighter. Attacking again, he closed rapidly to pour 2-mm cannon fire into the MIG. Just as he pulled up sharply to avoid a collision, he saw the fighter go into a tight spin and crash.
Major Thorsness then had to leave because he was low on fuel. While searching for a KC-135 Stratotanker, he learned from the Search and Rescue Center that two helicopters were waiting for an escort before attempting a rescue of the downed crew. Major Thorsness flew back alone, spotting four MIG-17s as he neared the bailout area. He immediately attacked and damaged one of the enemy aircraft with a long burst of cannon fire. He drew the others away by diving and flying close to the ground until they gave up pursuit.
Although now critically short of fuel, Major Thorsness advised another F-105 to fly to the nearest tanker when the crew reported that it would have to bail out unless their aircraft could be quickly refueled. He then diverted to a forward base where he landed with only a 10-minute supply of fuel remaining.
Major Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor for his deeds of extraordinary heroism on this mission. Only 11 days later he was shot down over North Vietnam and held prisoner for nearly six years. Following his release, Major Thorsness received this highest decoration for valor from President Richard M. Nixon at the White House Oct. 15, 1973.
See the full citation from the Congressional Medal of Honor Societ website.
For more information see the National Museum of the USAF website.